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Activists Press Corporations to Cut Ties With Presidential Debate Commission

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University of Denver students stand in for President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney during a dress rehearsal for tonight's presidential debate.

Updated, 7:09 p.m.

How did a former Iowa police officer help persuade one of the world's largest electronics firms to sever ties with America's presidential debates?

It took only a few emails, according to Rick Stewart, who successfully lobbied Philips North America to drop its support of the Commission on Presidential Debates as part of a campaign to open the debates to third-party candidates.

Philips, which was supposed to be one of 10 corporate sponsors of Wednesday night's debate, cut ties with the commission Saturday, citing concerns about appearing partisan. The move came just days after two other sponsors - the YWCA and Bartle Bogle Hegarty, a New York advertising firm - bailed for similar reasons after receiving emails from Stewart.

Now, with three debates left on the schedule, Stewart and a band of anti-establishment activists are training their sights on three other sponsors - Southwest Airlines Co., Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. and the International Bottled Water Association.

If enough high-profile companies abandon the commission, the activists hope it will change its criteria for candidate participation and abolish the 20-plus-page contracts detailing strict guidelines for the debates.

The commission website says participation in the debates is limited to those candidates who have the support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate according to five selected national public polls. That has been one Republican and one Democrat every year since 1992.

As candidates at all levels hype their anti-establishment bona fides, the commission, a nonprofit organization charged with staging the presidential debates, is under fire from left and right for perpetuating a two-party system.

"It's very concerning to me because [these companies] have done this out of the belief that these are important and valuable events," Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, said in an interview Wednesday. "They are being targeted by people who have an issue with the CPD, and I am very sorry."

Stewart, who describes himself as a libertarian-leaning "nonjoiner," started a group called Help the Commission this summer before taking his case directly to the commission's Washington, D.C., headquarters in August.

"I knocked on the door of [the CPD] office, and the person who answered it peeked out like an Iowa widow in a farmhouse at midnight," Stewart said. Four days and several visits later, a CPD official threatened to have him arrested, he said. "I returned to Iowa. As I worked from here, I realized the CPD was not worth attacking anymore, so I went after the sponsors."

Southwest, Anheuser-Busch and the bottled water industry group said in statements to Roll Call that they would maintain their sponsorships.

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